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Lyons plans another national apology

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 1999


First, there was Connie. Now come Katie and Matt.

Three days after the Rev. Henry J. Lyons brought his message of repentance to a nationwide audience on ABC's 20/20, the fallen Baptist leader will do it again for the breakfast crowd: this time, on NBC's Today show Thursday.

Alluding to an expected deal today with federal prosecutors, Denis de Vlaming, one of Lyons' attorneys, said the minister feels free to apologize for the scandal that resulted in his conviction on state racketeering and grand theft charges.

"Dr. Lyons wants to have some national exposure to really tell America -- and black America in particular -- that he is sorry for what has transpired," said de Vlaming, adding that Lyons and his wife, Deborah, plan to appear at NBC's Manhattan studios Thursday for a live interview if the court allows.

Though Lyons' attorneys say he made the final decisions about his recent high-profile interviews, there were some differences among his legal advisers on the best course of action.

De Vlaming says he was contacted by 20/20 producers Thursday and helped set up the interview. Another of Lyons' attorneys, Grady Irvin Jr., said he opposed the interview with anchor Connie Chung, saying that the minister should have notified the National Baptist Convention USA's board of directors that he had decided to resign before telling 20/20.

Instead, the newsmagazine aired its story Monday, one day before Lyons would meet with the board. Thanks to a statement and photos issued by ABC Sunday, news broke of Lyons' decision to step down long before Chung's story was broadcast.

Irvin, who said he spent months talking to producers from Dateline NBC and CBS' 60 Minutes to arrange interviews with Lyons, criticized "other attorneys involved who, for whatever reason, were lured (by) the name of Connie Chung being tossed around."

"But I wasn't lured by the names of Barbara Walters, Jane Pauley or Stone Phillips," Irvin said.

However, de Vlaming said with the case nearly resolved, it was reasonable for Lyons to talk.

"It's well known that (today) he will enter a plea deal in the federal case," de Vlaming said. "The only thing left now is sentencing. The (state and federal) judges, if they look at any of these TV pieces . . . will see a man who is repentant."

De Vlaming resisted the idea that Lyons was speaking out to influence those who will decide his punishment.

"Until (this week), Dr. Lyons has not apologized to America," he said. "He's done it on a respected night-time show, 20/20 . . . and Today hits the daytime viewers."

Irvin, who was on vacation in California when 20/20 called de Vlaming last week, stopped short of saying the disagreements over Lyons' recent media appearances indicated a serious rift within the legal team. De Vlaming also downplayed the differences.

Officials at the Today show declined to comment beyond confirming Lyons' expected appearance.

Chung, who flew into St. Petersburg on two days' notice for the Saturday interview and worked around the clock Monday on the story, said she never asked why the minister agreed to talk with her first:

"You never ask why someone is talking to you . . . because he may convince himself not to. We were interested, because it was somewhat of a classic story of a fall from grace. He's a religious and African-American leader . . . and the atmosphere of the Clinton scandal . . . with all the talk about sex . . . may have heightened interest."

Chung said Lyons' apologetic remarks during the 21/2 hours they talked Saturday -- where he admitted having affairs with two women and misusing about $225,000 in money donated for burned churches -- came as a surprise, making tough questions difficult.

"If some one is contrite . . . do you really bear down on them?" she asked. "There's a fine line between what's appropriate and what's unseemly. I just tried to hit the key points and elicit some new information."

De Vlaming said Lyons has no other national TV appearances scheduled after the Today show.

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